In 2005, sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy traveled from California to New York City for the first time, their suitcases stuffed with eight handmade dresses and two coats. The self-taught designers then cold-called fashion editors from a friend’s East Village apartment and, astonishingly, landed an interview with Women’s Wear Daily, a prominent fashion industry trade publication. Two days later, the journal ran a cover story on the sisters’ bracingly original vision and their newly minted fashion label, Rodarte (an alternate spelling of their mother’s maiden name).
The Mulleavys have since become go-to designers for stylish stars such as Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman and Selena Gomez. But few people — with the exception of those who haunt red carpets and runways — have seen the sisters’ high-end work in real life. That’s about to change with a new exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. “Rodarte,” the museum’s first fashion exhibit, features nearly 100 highly detailed garments, many of which are more like wearable sculptures than clothes.
“There’s something special about seeing what we make in real life, and being able to observe the layers and observe the intricacies behind these designs,” Laura says. “When you take a flat photo of something that’s very three-dimensional, no matter how beautiful the shot is, it loses something.”
As for the secret behind the sisters’ success, Laura credits their original point of view and the fact that they follow their own muse, without bending to trends or market demands. She hopes the exhibit inspires budding artists to do the same.
“Kate and I always tell design students, ‘Listen to your gut and follow your own unique voice,’ ” Laura says. “Whether you’re a fashion designer or a fine artist or an interior designer, just knowing that someone can make things from their heart and for that to translate is hopefully motivational.”
Laura shared the inspiration behind five Rodarte creations, all of which you can see at the museum starting Saturday.
“‘Black Swan’ was about the brutality of ballet and what it takes for a dancer to put their body through such rigid training. There’s the beauty, but there’s an undercurrent of brutality, and that’s what we wanted to do with the costume [for the 2010 film]. There’s the idea of scarred tissue with the hand-embroidered leather on the upper-chest area, and the netting is battered in places. All of it makes you feel like the character is wild. Making something to go with our dear friend Natalie [Portman’s] performance was really special — seeing her go through that transformation really changed my view of acting.”
“We grew up in a little hillside town attached to Santa Cruz — sort of a surfer, skater community — and the 2013 collection this dress is from is sort of an origin story. It’s based on a lot of ideas we had growing up [in the 1990s] — when we saw tie-dye for the first time, when we first encountered counterculture. This dress has beautiful roses with hand-embroidered Swarovski crystals and then it goes to tie-dye, which was maybe an homage to the Grateful Dead.”
“This is from our mermaid collection, from 2015. When we were children, we went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and there was a section where they showed you what it looked like where the pier goes into the ocean and accumulates barnacles and sea anemones. So our idea of a mermaid is all about the accumulation of life on a body. There are a lot of different layers in this dress — one is an iridescent sequined net, and there’s a hand-embroidered lace that has pearl and feathers. We then worked with a painter and had that hand-painted to look like things underneath the ocean.”
“This is from our  collection which referenced ‘Star Wars.’ We’ve always loved ‘Star Wars’ and appreciated the artistry of George Lucas; everything was so artfully done and every detail of the film — the costumes, the backgrounds — were handmade. This dress has a large, hand-embroidered swirl in the center, with Swarovski crystals, and the dress itself is probably made of 45 yards of silk tulle that has been hand-dyed and then all hand-sewn onto the dress so it looks like a second skin. The tulle was hand-dyed to create those soft washes of color that represent the nebulae of outer space.”
“Kate and I love nature. Our father is a botanist and the natural world has always been a huge part of our lives. There’s no specific inspiration for this  pantsuit except for the fact that I wanted to create something very beautiful and detailed, like nature. And I think one of the ways that we approach design is thinking about what makes something look so perfect that’s imperfect, or how can something have so much symmetry but at the same time have an organic element to it. All those layers of sequined flowers are hand-embroidered, so no two are alike.”
National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW; Sat. through Feb. 10, $10.